Fatal Impact by Kathryn Fox – Extract

Fatal Impact


The technician anchored the small pack to her waist band and clipped the microphone to her jacket lapel.

‘Please welcome to the stage the internationally renowned forensic pathologist and one of the world’s foremost experts in forensic medicine, Tasmania’s own Dr Anya Crichton.’

Lecture notes in one hand, Anya wiped her spare hand on her trouser leg as she climbed the steps to the stage amidst loud applause. A quick glance confirmed the auditorium was filled to capacity.

‘Thank you,’ she began. ‘I’m sorry to be here. In fact, I’m sorry that any of us has to be here to discuss violence against women and children.’

The audience was silent. Anya had their attention.

She brought up the first slide with a handheld remote: a clean skull projected onto the giant screen.

‘Some of you will find this talk disturbing, but I don’t do victims any favours if I censor the effects of the violence. If there are any family members present or victims of violent crime, I’d ask you to consider leaving this session. I have chosen to show specific images to discuss. Despite being unidentifiable, they may cause distress.’

She paused. An elderly couple rose, shuffled to the aisle and exited the auditorium.

Anya wondered if her own father, an advocate for victims of homicide, had been delayed or chosen to sit this session out. He normally texted or emailed as soon as he arrived. She cleared her throat and presented the next slide: a side view of the same skull. ‘The skull is a series of bones joined together by what we call sutures. Here, a section made of up of right temporal and frontal bones is depressed.’ She used the laser pointer to demonstrate. ‘This was a fatal injury caused by a blow with a blunt object.’

The next slide showed a bruised and swollen face, a digital black band obscured the eyes. The only hint at the victim’s sex was the long blood-matted hair to the side of the head.

Anya suspected that few in the room knew about this case. ‘This was a twenty-five-year-old woman with two children. She was pregnant with her third child, but the uterus was ruptured during this latest beating. This woman endured at least twice-weekly beatings.’ Anya moved to a drawing of the human body and with each click, revealed a new red mark, indicating a fracture or significant injury. Broken wrists, elbow, tibia, jaw, ruptured spleen, torn liver, fractured eye socket.

There were audible gasps throughout the theatre.

‘This woman was found at the base of the Gap in Sydney. Her husband told friends and family she had left him and her children for another man. Her body wasn’t found for three days.’ She paused. ‘Cause of death was multiple trauma, but there were multiple bone fractures at various stages of healing. The woman suffered regular beatings and disclosed to her mother, who lived overseas, that she wanted to leave her violent husband. When friends and the local doctor asked about the injuries, she repeatedly denied her husband’s involvement. It’s typical in these cases that victims remain silent, for fear of escalation of the violence, or even being killed.’

She let the words hang. The room remained silent. ‘Police found traces of her blood in the family home and the husband was charged. He used the previous beatings as a defence because if he had wanted her dead, he could have killed her any time. He maintained that she had left him.’

She drew in a breath. ‘Tragically, he later boasted about killing her to a friend, but had already been tried and acquitted by then. By remaining silent about the pattern of behaviour, which would have alarmed anyone and highlighted how much risk she was in, this woman helped her husband get away. With her own murder.’

She paused and then showed another slide: of a small skeleton found burnt in bushland behind a town. ‘I did the post-mortems on all of these cases. We sometimes get a history, and this is what I received for this boy. In this child’s seven years, he was like a ghost. Neighbours barely saw him, and he didn’t attend school or socialise with others. He lived with various relatives and at one stage was forcibly removed from his mother, but she regained custody. Community service workers’ calls often go unanswered or the families refuse to open the door to them. Even if friends reported seeing bruises on the face and neck, he most likely would have been failed by the system.’ She hit the next slide. ‘There was a litany of old healed and healing fractures. I found teeth in what was left of the stomach, dislodged from the mouth by a blow. Exact cause of death was impossible to establish due to the fact the body had been severely burnt, and that also made homicide difficult to prove.’

Studying the slide, Anya couldn’t help make comparisons to her eight-year-old son, Ben, who was full of life, hope and love. Things this poor child had been deprived of.

She turned to face the audience. ‘One of these cases attracted nationwide media attention and affected changes to law. But which one?’ She paused. The audience muttered quietly amongst themselves.

Anya took a sip of water from a glass on the lectern.

‘The first case,’ she clicked forward to another slide of the skull, ‘was that of an eighteen-year-old law student.

Four friends went out for a night in the city. Only three came home. This was considered a random act of violence. He had his life ahead of him. According to witnesses, there was no provocation. The young man was out with his girlfriend, celebrating turning eighteen and being legally able to drink. All it took was one blow with an iron bar to kill him.’ She showed a photo of a handsome young face that had filled the newspapers. ‘The offender was drunk and admitted to looking for a fight. He was evicted from a couple of venues earlier in the night for being intoxicated. He claimed he didn’t remember hitting the student, or why he chose to target him.

‘This case outraged the country and every talkback radio show. It should be a basic right to go into the city and come back alive. Laws about late-night opening and responsible alcohol service were changed within weeks, with bipartisan support.’

She could see some of the audience lean forward. ‘There is no doubt we should all be safe to walk around our cities at night. But what about the right to sleep safely in our own beds? To be safe at home without being murdered by a person who is supposed to love us? To grow up without being tortured?

‘For those who were wondering, The woman at the Gap had migrated from India to marry her husband, in the hope of a better life. The little boy was born in a remote community to an Indigenous mother and died in a small town in the house of a stepfather and uncle. His death barely rated a mention in the press.’

Anya noticed a middle-aged woman on crutches heading down the central aisle towards a standing microphone set up for questions. Two security guards quickly descended and blocked her path. Words were exchanged and the woman began shouting as the guards moved back. The house lights came up.

The emcee quickly moved to Anya’s side and explained, ‘There’s a protest group outside. Looks like one of them somehow managed to slip through security.’

The disabled woman didn’t appear to be much of a threat, but Anya appreciated the security concerns. The front-row seats were occupied by prominent state and federal politicians, community leaders and the odd sports star. She wondered who the protesters were targeting. The woman in the aisle continued to call out until she was escorted out the doors.

The emcee switched on his hand mike as the woman’s muff led voice receded. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, apologies for that interruption. May I take this opportunity to remind you to wear your conference lanyard for all sessions. For security reasons, no one will be allowed in without their access pass. Once again, I apologise for the interruption.’ He turned to Anya. ‘Back to you, doctor.’

The crowd applauded, and Anya continued. ‘In no way is this conference intended to diminish the impact of the violence many men experience. Clearly, we are not silent about some forms of violence – on our streets, for example. As a pathologist, I’ve seen far too many murder victims, both men and women. But it wasn’t until I became a forensic physician – and documented injuries on surviving victims as well – that the true scope of violence against women and children became apparent to me. I liken it to unfinished murder.’

A man in jeans and a loose shirt approached the central microphone, holding up a lanyard in one hand to declare his right to be present. Anya opted to accept the question at this stage in the talk.

‘I respect your opinion, doctor, but there are also women who abuse their partners and their children. Men are more likely to die from violence than women, if the facts are told. Why aren’t you and everyone else here standing up for those men as well? The media coverage of street violence has been too long coming, and now you criticise it!’

Anya suspected he had experienced violence or abuse himself.

‘I’m not criticising, just contrasting cases that invoke public outrage. You’re right. What’s reported is merely the tip of the iceberg. Every boy who witnesses or experiences violence is five times more likely to abuse his partner and children,’ she held up one hand, fingers spread. ‘Every girl who witnesses or experiences violence as a child is five times more likely to be abused by her partner. Is it any wonder we’re seeing increased episodes of violence generation by generation, among both men and women? Stopping violence in the home is a major societal issue. I honestly believe that by preventing violence against women and children, all men benefit.’ She clicked forward to a new slide, but the man wasn’t finished.

‘After we separated, my ex-wife falsely accused me of stalking her and abusing our children,’ his voice was now raised. ‘I was home alone and couldn’t prove it. The kids were too young to be credible witnesses. Then she got an apprehended violence order taken out so I couldn’t see my kids.’ He jabbed a finger in her direction. ‘How can we protect ourselves when society’s first reaction is to punish men? You didn’t even bother to mention the high rate of male suicide.’

A few people in the audience clapped loudly. Anya felt for the man but did not want to allow the discussion to veer away from the main focus of the conference.

‘I’m sorry about your personal situation, but there are moves to help men – to vindicate those who are falsely accused, and to prevent violent offenders from doing more harm.

‘I’m currently involved in a trial program that puts GPS monitors on men who have apprehended violence orders taken out against them. Up until now, it is the women and children who have had to move, hide, change their behaviour, completely abandon their routines and support networks. We all know that AVOs don’t stop bullets, knives or fists. Based on their history of abuse, personality, and a number of other factors, men are rated in terms of the risk of violence they pose. Those deemed at highest risk of committing further violence are fitted with a GPS monitor in addition to receiving counselling. If they go anywhere stipulated under the AVO, police can immediately intervene before anyone is hurt. In your case, this would have confirmed you were not a threat to your former wife and had been nowhere near the children when she claimed. The point, however, is that men are now being compelled to modify their behaviour and learn what is acceptable and what isn’t.’

‘Guilty until proven innocent,’ the questioner responded. ‘It may appear that way, but it is saving lives. And the futures of men who may have been imprisoned otherwise. It may not be perfect, but it’s better than the situation we have now. Ninety women murdered by spouses in the past two years and how many more living with the constant fear of being murdered? Even one is far too many.’

The audience erupted in applause.

‘Now, let’s go over some of the physical things to look for in abuse victims,’ Anya continued. ‘Injuries on the dead look vastly different from on the living. Scars and wounds are enhanced when blood is no longer pumping. It’s the wounds and injuries on children at most risk we need to become more adept at recognising.’

Myriad cases f lashed through Anya’s mind as she presented some slides, the identities of the children masked with black blocks across their eyes. Some members of the audience audibly repositioned in their seats, while others gasped. The men in the front row sat with arms folded, legs extended.

The slides were shocking. Cigarette burns, belt-buckle bruises, fractured jaws, faces so swollen their features were unrecognisable.

Then Anya showed some slides of minor bruising and asked the audience if the examples were normal or abnormal. At the end of the session, Anya collected her USB and descended the stairs.

‘Excuse me, doctor.’

A young man dressed in a grey suit and black tie greeted her. ‘Fantastic talk. Absolutely riveting,’ he said and shook Anya’s hand. ‘Ryan Chapman, I work for Minister Moss. He’s asked for a quiet word outside. And perhaps a photo op.’

The emcee came over and collected Anya’s microphone, then addressed the audience. ‘Our next session will begin in five minutes, so if you can please resume your seats.’ Anya excused herself from the group and moved outside to the foyer, where she greeted the minister. She noticed the protesters outside the glass auditorium foyer, chanting and carrying placards about ‘Frankenfoods’.

‘Christian Moss. Welcome back to Hobart, Doctor,’ the minister effused. ‘Apologies for the rabble-rousing. They’re demanding we end progress and make the state a national park.’ Anya had assumed the protesters were objecting to some aspect of the conference. She often received a barrage of insulting emails after presenting. The most frequent of late was that she was a man-hater and was jealous because she was too disgusting to rape. Trolls often f looded her inbox, and she had learnt over time to ignore the anonymous bile, but report particularly threatening messages to police. Luckily, the threats were rare.

‘Have to say that was really compelling. As Minister for Community Services and Policing, I hear a lot of speeches, and that was extraordinary. I think your GPS program may go down very well here,’ said the minister, with an oily smile.

Anya was more than a little surprised. It wasn’t often politicians approached her about starting preventive projects. Cost and lack of immediate benefits didn’t often translate to votes, particularly when it came to subjects that polarised voters. ‘What about funding and police support?’ she asked.

‘We can always find the funds, and leave the support to me.’ Moss winked. ‘I’m here to make a real difference. Sometimes there’s a greater good at stake.’

‘Excuse me, sir, press are waiting, cameras are set up.’ Ryan Chapman appeared at the minister’s elbow, checking his smart phone. ‘And we have to avoid the street closures.’ He raised the phone. ‘A quick photo?’

Anya stood beside Moss for the picture, unsure whether to be excited about the possibility of trialling GPS devices to curb domestic violence in the state, or suspicious that she was being used to boost Moss’s standing with female voters.

‘We’ll be in touch,’ Ryan Chapman assured her, and passed over a business card. She reached into her bag and returned the gesture with one of hers. Moss pocketed it before following his assistant out to address the sea of protesters. Anya decided to go back to her room to freshen up before a pre-arranged coffee with the police commissioner.

Checking her phone, she headed across to the adjoining hotel lobby, glad to avoid the press conference out on Davey Street. A text message confirmed her father had arrived in time to hear her speak and was proud of how well she’d done. He was racing off to run a legal workshop for social workers and GPs, and would see her for dinner. She messaged back: 7 pm Constitution Dock.

In the lobby, the woman who had attempted to interrupt her talk sat on a lounge, crutches leaning against the side of her chair. A hotel security officer stood by her, speaking into a walkie-talkie.

‘I’m not leaving until I’ve seen her,’ said the woman tartly. ‘Madam, you are trespassing. We are going to ask you one more time to leave, or you’ll be forcibly removed. No one wants that.’

‘I have every right to be here.’ The woman remained defiant. ‘I’ll tell you exactly what I told your minion. I’m waiting for one of your paying guests.’

‘Madam, does she even know you’re coming?’ There was the slightest hesitation. ‘Of course.’

The security man rubbed his forehead and looked around. ‘You can’t camp here hoping to see a conference participant. We take our guests’ privacy very seriously.’

‘I’ll sit here all day and night if that’s what it takes.’

Metres away from the exchange, Anya’s phone rang. It was the front desk from the Grand Chancellor, asking if she was expecting a guest in the lobby.

Anya glanced across at the woman. ‘Does she walk with crutches?’

‘Yes.’ The receptionist sounded surprised. ‘You do know her?’

Anya breathed out. ‘I’ll go and talk to her now.’ She hung up and approached the lounge.

‘Dr Crichton,’ the woman exclaimed, and attempted to get up but struggled against the deep cushion. ‘My name is Beatrice Quaid. I have been waiting to see you.’

Anya extended her hand and said hello. The woman was hardly a threat and this was a very public place. She didn’t seem to have anything to do with the protest outside.

‘Apologies, madam, doctor, for any misunderstanding.’ The security man stepped back. ‘If we can be of further assistance . . .’

‘You’ll be the first to know,’ the woman said, sarcastically. She must have been in her late sixties, dressed in elasticised pants and a floral appliquéd T-shirt. Anya sat on the adjacent chair.

‘The papers said you helped people and that you would be here for a conference. I’d almost given up hope.’ Her breathing was laboured and she wheezed intermittently. Arthritic fingers dug inside her open handbag to a set of rosary beads. ‘I’ve been praying for help and here you are.’ The woman’s eyes were dark and soulful. ‘You’re my last chance.’ The woman was determined, if nothing else.

‘For what?’ Anya asked.

Mrs Quaid swallowed. ‘To prove a woman murdered her child.’

Anya was surprised. ‘My job is to determine cause of death and the nature of injuries, and I specialise in sexual assaults. If you think a death may have been suspicious, you need to tell the police.’

‘If money’s an issue, I can pay.’ The fingers grabbled with an envelope from the bag, stuffed with dollar notes. ‘I’ll do whatever it takes for justice.’ Her eyes welled. ‘Please help me, I’m begging you.’

Anya lightly touched the woman’s elbow. ‘Have you spoken to the police?’

Mrs Quaid wheezed. ‘They treat me like I’m crazy. One said I could be charged with making a vexatious claim. The security guard over there wanted to have me charged with trespass and creating a public disturbance.’

Anya glanced around the foyer, which was congested with a group checking in or out. It was easy to see why the hotel security discouraged loiterers, and the woman’s manner had not endeared her to them. That didn’t mean she was crazy.

‘Who do you think was murdered?’

‘I don’t think. I know. My grandson was murdered. By my own daughter.’

Excerpted from Fatal Impact by Kathryn Fox. Copyright © 2014 by Kathryn Fox.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.


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