Before she was the drainage ditch Dahlia, she was someone’s daughter, a friend, maybe a sister or a wife. A person somebody had to have known.
She’d been found in a ditch off a rural road a few days before by a trucker who’d pulled over to relieve himself. Naked, severed in two at the waist, fish-belly white and bloodless, a Glasgow grin carved almost ear to ear across her face. She’d been lying on her back in a small pool of water, already bloated by the time she was discovered. It was estimated she’d been killed just shy of a week before.
The media, ever fond of both murder and catchy monikers, latched on to the case. There was no denying the similarities of the woman’s wounds to those of Elizabeth Short, more commonly known as the Black Dahlia after her 1947 murder became news fodder. Once that got out, it was only a matter of time before she was branded. To keep things slightly more professional, the police dubbed her Dahlia Doe.
A brief description of her was released to the public: Female, caucasian, possibly between the ages of 20-30, dark brown hair, brown eyes, approximately 5’5”. Given her condition, photos could not be shared. Aside from the slash across her face, the level of decomposition already present had left her features swollen and misshapen. There were no clothes or identification found near her body. Her fingerprints weren’t in the system.
No one came forward to claim her.
I was called seventy-two hours later. The detectives leading the case hired me on to perform a forensic facial reconstruction. I’d done a few for them in the past, usually cold cases that needed a modern touch up, and it often proved helpful in identifying the victim. It wasn’t an exact science by any means, but it could be a good place to start.
What an unfortunate creature.
I remember that being the first thing I thought when I received the photos that had been taken for me. They were of various angles of her face and head. Even with the decomposition, it was clear she’d been badly beaten. Her nose was broken, her lips puffy and purple. The gashes that curved up her cheeks were deep and purposeful. She gazed up at the camera through milky, half-closed eyes. She hardly looked human anymore.
I set the pictures up around my computer before opening the reconstruction software. I imported the CT scans that the medical examiner had sent to me and began trying to find the appropriate 3D template to overlay the images.
I had to start with a skull and I’d build Dahlia Doe from there.
After determining tissue depth for her nose, cheeks, and chin, I laid down my markers and added a layer of muscle over them. The program allowed me rotate the skull on my screen, zooming in and out until I was satisfied with my placement. Dahlia grinned out of the screen at me, a red floating skull with empty eye sockets.
I color matched a pair of eyes as best I could and inserted them into those sockets to make my computer rendering feel a bit more like a person.
I picked up the front facing photo of the girl and held it up to the monitor, trying to determine if I was on the right track. The broken nose made it difficult to tell if I’d gotten it just right, but I thought it was close enough. I leaned in, scrutinizing both.
The longer I stared between the two, the photo of the unfortunate Dahlia Doe with her twisted features and my flesh-less computer rendering, the more an uneasy feeling began to creep about in my stomach. I couldn’t quite nail down why, I’d seen plenty of similarly gruesome photos before. There was just something about the dead, lightless way Dahlia gazed ahead that seemed to be getting to me.
I set the photo down again and gave my cheeks a couple pinches to snap me back to reality. It wasn’t like me to become uncomfortable in the face of death. I wouldn’t have lasted long in my chosen career if that was the case. Besides, it was still early in the process and I had a lot of work to do yet. No time to be mucking about with nerves while the detectives were waiting on me.
After getting a cup of tea to give myself a short break, I sat back down at my desk and began putting the final touches on my model’s musculature.
That uneasy feeling persisted, however, even with the soothing qualities of earl grey trying to wash it down.
If anything, it was only getting worse.
Goosebumps had sprinkled themselves across the back of my neck as I filled out Dahlia’s lips. A chill settled over my shoulders while I rounded out her cheeks without that horrid cut running across them. I could feel my pulse thrumming in my neck, quick and anxious, as I tried to determine the best flesh tone to use.
Finally, I gathered all the photos up into a pile and flipped them over. I didn’t want to look at them anymore. I didn’t want her looking at me anymore. It was ridiculous, they were just pictures of a poor murdered woman who I was trying to help, but I blamed them for the cagey feeling of panic that was sweeping over me.
I got up, paced a bit, opened a window and let the cool fall air wash over me, but when I turned, the segment of Dahlia’s face that I’d been working on was still waiting for me. Her left eyebrow, almost finished.
Stop being an idiot, I told myself.
Getting so worked up over a job was unprofessional. I forced myself to retake my seat and zoomed out to look at my progress thus far and determine how much more was left to go.
My clicking slowed the further out I went. It was the eyes that I noticed first. The slight downward slope at the outside corner. And then the height of the cheekbones, giving the face an angular, sharper shape that had been lost in the swelling. The slight point that the chin came to.
I groped blindly for the photos, unable to take my eyes off the screen, and grabbed the top one. I held it up with a shaking hand and looked from the rendering to it and back again.
My mouth had gone dry. My heart hammered against my ribs. I wanted to make sense of it. I tried!
But there was no sense to be had.
I had no way to explain why the face on my screen, the one that was supposed to belong to the drainage ditch Dahlia, looked just like mine.